The Summer Containers

By no means have I had a chance to go back and look at all of the container projects we planted in late May and June, but I have had a chance to see a few.  The season so far has been very friendly to the tropical plants. I am referring to the heat, of course.  Any gardener that has been able to keep up with the daunting task of watering their containers properly has been rewarded with an astonishing display of lush growth and lavish flowering. Proper watering is not constant watering. It means watering ahead of that moment when the plants stress from lack of water. A consistent and measured watering hand makes for great looking summer containers.People ask me what my protocol and procedure is for watering all the time. My best advice is to never assume a plant needs water. Assess whether it needs water first. The roots of plants that get too much water will rot, and will not be able to absorb water no matter how much is available. Keeping plants on the slightly moist side encourages root growth. That said, every plant has preferences about what level of moisture they require.  Planting containers with plants of a similar inclination makes a watering routine easier. The box pictured above is watered by hand. The boxwood and hosta had substantial root balls before they were planted into the container. Add a bright shade location to the mix, and you have a container that does not require a daily drenching to prosper.

The mandevillea this year are blooming profusely. They love the heat. In Michigan, they thrive in full sun.They also like just the right combination of regular water and good drainage. A mandevillea sporting yellow leaves is either getting too much, or too little water. You will not be able to figure out which until you try more or less water, and see if the trouble stops. This container is mechanically watered via a dedicated container zone on the irrigation system. Figuring out how often to water, and for how many minutes each time is a trial and error process. It is simple to tell by looking at these plants that the amount of water they are getting is just right.

The window boxes pictured above and below also have a mechanical watering system, but I happen to know my client does not rely on it.  His irrigation buys him some time, if he is busy and can’t get to the watering immediately. He checks them routinely.The exposure here is easterly, so the boxes are shaded from the sun in the afternoon. All these plants like the heat, and a reliable source of water.

The ability to look after plants does not come standard issue. It takes patience, observation, and experience to figure out what way works for both the gardener and their garden. Fortunately, a lot of ways work. Plants can be incredibly forgiving of mistakes, but over the course of a summer season, their water needs are not negotiable. It doesn’t hurt to site pots and pick plants with some thought to how they will be maintained. I am pleased with how our summer plantings are getting along.

My pots at home are doing fine. Karen, David and Marzela give me a hand with the watering on occasion. I have 43 containers. 20 boxes and pots in the front now have their own automatic watering zone. The two pots by the front door are hand watered – that much I can do. The remaining pots are all watered by hand. They were all soaked on Friday. Today’s a day I will need to check to see if they need water, or restraint.

2018 Garden Cruise Tomorrow

I have seen every landscape and garden that will be on our tour tomorrow which benefits the Greening of Detroit. They are all very different, and all very strong. To follow are 19 good reasons why the this 11th Garden Cruise is worth taking.  The 20th, and most important reason, is that all of the proceeds from the tickets sold are turned over as a donation to The Greening of Detroit.  We strongly support the work they do in our city. We still have tickets available; call 248  335  8089.   Rob opens Detroit Garden Works at 8am tomorrow, for anyone who wants to decide in the morning they would like to tour.

I will be home in my own garden all day tomorrow-please stop by and say hello.

Bedding Out

Bedding out annual plants was a seasonal planting practice very popular from the late 1860’s until the turn of the century. Victorian gardeners, particularly of an English persuasion, reveled in planting seasonal and tropical plants in intricate patterns in ground resembling rugs. Or clocks. Or other objects and events. Or giant shapes all of one color and cultivar of plant. It seems so difficult to understand this concept of annual in ground gardening now, as modern gardeners are used to having thousands of cultivars of annual plants available to buy or grow from seed. What probably drove the fad as much as anything was the recent availability of tropical and annual plants that would bloom all summer long. The Victorian gardens took their plant choice liberation seriously.  They planted everything they could find.

The Victorians-they embellished everything they had a mind to.  Architecture, fashion-and gardening. I will confess to have bedded out many thousands of annual plants over a period of 10 years during my tenure as the garden designer for the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. Of course a resort hotel dating back to the Victorian era would ask for gardens reminiscent of the same period. One season I designed and Rob drew a scale plan for a for a long curving bed with the Stars and Stripes. Every bedding out garden I designed for them included decorative dirt. Those dirt spaces enabled discreet maintenance paths, but they also enabled a clear and crisp definition of the pattern.

Even the simplest pattern relied on planting a large area for the pattern to read properly. Bedding out large areas took lots of plants. Annual plants are a fairly inexpensive source of gardening pleasure, but planting lots of them is expensive.

Although few residential gardeners plant annuals in ground on this scale, some commercial properties still do a big job of bedding out annuals. The expansive shapes and bright colors are cheery and inviting. Detroit Garden Works does have a moderately sized annual garden out front, which is planted in a different way every year. It is part of what makes a visit to the shop enjoyable and interesting. We plant tulips in the spring, and hope the summer annuals persist until late fall.  Though the Victorians embellished everything they touched, more modern gardeners are looking for a more simple splash of color. I do not bed out in the classical definition of the term any more. But I do plant seasonal plants in the ground. Any request for annual plantings in ground that come to me suggest a mix of plants.

My primary attraction to a mix of plants has to do with spreading out the risk. If the salvia in this bed has a bad year, the petunias might be able to carry the day.  It is just good planning to plant any large in ground area I need to plant with a collection of plants.  I like to hedge my bets. The plant mix first and foremost asks for plants that like similar growing conditions.

So I mix the plants before I mix the colors. Nature has a way of turning the tide when you least expect it, so I always design with the possibility of trouble in mind. Designing a mix is easy. You need three colors for a mix to be even. In this bed, I planted white petunias between each of the other colors. White lightens and brightens the overall scheme. White provides a very strong contract to every other color nearby – even pastel colors. Adding a 4th and 5th plant to a planting scheme can be very busy. Noisy, even. This bed with 3 types of plants- tall florist’s ageratum, petunias, and sky blue Cathedral salvia – and 5 colors will be visually fairly quiet, as all of the colors are closely related.

Viewed on the diagonal, this bed will have distinct stripes, given the placement of the white petunias between each of the other two petunia colors.  I will be interested to see how the look shifts from different points of view once this bed has grown in. I rarely plant at the shop until all of my clients have their flowers, so this was planted but 2 weeks ago.  Given that the soil is warm, they will grow fast. To follow are pictures of a few of the in ground plantings we did this year.

This is a relatively small planting area, but a small planting area does not have to be uninteresting. The biggest challenge will be keeping water intended for the lawn out of this area. All of these plants thrive in fairly dry conditions once they are established.

The other small planting areas on either side of the walk feature a purple mix of petunias and scaevola, punctuated with a dash of lime licorice.

White petunias, cirrus dusty miller, and lime licorice make for an unusual color scheme, which is exactly what my clients like.

The cirrus dusty miller will provide a little height, and the licorice and petunias will weave in and out of one another.

The mix in the pots is pink, red and red violet, leavened with variegated licorice.

in ground, a mix of 3 colors of petunias.

This small garden area features 2 colors of dwarf cleome, verbena bonariensis, petunias in several colors, white angelonia and white phlox.

A little 4th of July style visual fireworks will energize this small space at the side door all summer long.

Carry Over, Carry On

Once the winter weather moderates, one of the first things on my mind is planting containers for the new season. In the spring, I can work the soil in a container long before an in ground garden is ready for my feet, or my shovel. That spring container will celebrate that early chilly season, until the advent of summer weather asks for a change. Though this client’s spring plantings ordinarily thrive until the end of June, a spate of very hot weather in May moved the date for a summer planting forward several weeks. During the course of planting their pots, I am thinking about those container plants that can survive the change of the seasons. Those plants that can be carried over.

The cordyline pictured above is a fairly new variety with a beautiful variegation.  I bought it as a 4″ pot. Not so impressive in that little pot. I recall it had five long leaves. No one shopping for plants at Detroit Garden Works that spring season spoke for it. At the end of the season, I could not bring myself to pitch it out. My grower overwinters plants from the shop and my good clients as a courtesy. I know the work of this is a lot of trouble for him, so I hope the materials he custom grows for us and the container plants we buy from him non stop in the spring season helps to balance out his willingness to hold over plants for us. Many of those plants are large old topiary plants belonging to clients – eugenias, boxwoods, jasmine, scented geranium standards, ferns and the like. Not a 4″ cordyline. But he was good natured about it. A number of little but beautiful cordylines spent the winter with him, in an unheated greenhouse that rarely dipped below 40 degrees.  In the spring, I scooped up that spiky plant, and planted it in a container at home. How I loved the the olive green, cream and brown variegation. I wintered it over again, in a much more robust state, and planted it at home in a container for a second season. By this spring, that cordyline had a substantial presence. It was ready for a placement in a container garden of a client. An under planting of pansies was all it needed.

This summer planting of that mature specialty cordyline under planted with frosted curls grass delights me. A simple but visually strong planting, this. It looked terrific in the early spring, under planted with pansies. There was no need to dig it out of this box, and cast it aside.  It will represent the summer in much the same beautiful way as it celebrated the spring. Surely this cordyline will sail through the fall. We are so fortunate that we have a grower who permits us to park plants with him in an unheated space over the winter. It is a rare grower who caters to an end user clientele who will winter over container plants. The cost of heating a glass house over the winter in our zone is prohibitive. It makes sense that most specialty tropical plants that are better than a year old are grown in parts of the US that do not experience temperatures below freezing. Many of the large tropical plants we see available are grown in Florida.

This spring planting here featured a centerpiece of fresh cut pussy willow and fan willow. In a circle all around that centerpiece, a number of gallon pots of lavender. The low stone planter was stuffed with white osteospermum. Rob buys in lots of large lavender plants early in the spring. They are remarkably cold tolerant, and their good size right from the start makes an impact in spring pots.

The lavender was just coming in to its own when it came time to plant for summer. The cut twig spring centerpiece was replaced with a white mandevillea. Summer for this container-done. Both mandevillea and lavender like conditions on the dry side, so the summer container design melds the old plants with the new. The osteospermum did get replaced with a quartet of blue foliaged escheverias, the color of which echoes the color of the lavender stems and foliage.

This pair of planter boxes repeated the same lavender, and a pair of rosemary standards in the back row. The front row is filled with classic early Michigan spring container plants – pansies, violas, sweet alyssum and annual white phlox intensia.

Once the spring plants were removed, it was obvious to see that the lavender and rosemary were thriving. The initial investment in those plants is offset by the fact that they will perform in these boxes another two seasons.  Should you garden in a warm climate, carrying over plants from season to season or year to year is probably a given.  But Michigan is noted for having four distinct seasons with widely varying conditions. These rosemarys would have to be wintered in a cool indoor space for the winter. The lavender is usually successful over the winter in the ground, provided they have perfect drainage.

We planted the front row of these boxes with variegated licorice, and a second crop of 4″ petunias. The petunia plants are small, but they are rooted to the bottom of the pot. They are at a perfect stage to transplant. The top growth will come later.

The petunias and licorice like the same conditions as the established rosemarys and lavender, so the watering will be a simple one size fits all.

Not every spring pot has plants that can be carried over.  We do use preserved eucalyptus, fresh cut spring branches and in this case, metal picks that look like Queen Anne’s lace, in the interest of variety. Spring is the toughest season to plant in our zone. Not so many plants can tolerate the cold, and most of them that do are of small stature.

Once this pot was cleaned out, the top 10″ of soil is replaced with fresh soil. If there is a suspicion that the cypress bark mulch in the bottom half of the container has deteriorated and is no longer draining well, we empty the entire pot, and start fresh. For pots that are tall, or for plantings that require fast drainage, we may use large gravel rather than an organic material in the bottom. It is a good idea to use drainage material that can be carried over in giant pots that are difficult or time consuming to empty. Essential to maintaining the exit of water from the pot is a layer of landscape fabric between the soil and the drainage material. Soil that works its way down into the drainage layer will eventually interfere with the drainage.

The figs and petunias will summer well in this pot. These are Chicago figs, meaning they are hardy as far north as Chicago. We will winter over good looking specimens at the end of the summer.  If a client has a protected and well drained spot for them, they can spend the winter outdoors.

To follow are more pictures of the switch to summer.

Yes, this spike has been wintered over several times.  Having large material available for large pots means the resulting planting is proportional to the size of the pot.  The bay plants in the foreground pot have a new collar of scented geraniums which will grow wide.

spring container planted in mid April

summer planting with a Persian lime and diamond frost euphorbia

The spring planting in this area features a Limelight hydrangea on standard under planted with lavender.

That pot will go on through the fall unchanged. Note that the hydrangea in this pot will get more water than the surrounding lavender.  Selective watering in containers such as this one can make a huge difference in the outcome.

spring window box featuring lemon cypress

same box for summer. Eventually, the lemon cypress planted on either side of the bar in the box will grow together, and read as one.

spring planting

white angelonia and variegated licorice – ready for summer.